Berlin Syndrome




Australian director Cate Shortland made her feature debut in 2004 with SOMERSAULT and followed up with LORE, a German language film set in Germany about the conflicted teenage children of a Nazi in the chaos and carnage of 1945.


Her third outing is titled BERLIN SYNDROME and stars Teresa Palmer as Clare, a young woman who throws in her job as a photographer in Brisbane and impulsively purchases a plane ticket to Berlin to photograph the dour architecture of the former GDR for a book project. She is clearly not a savvy world traveler as she is unable to ‘read’ people as far as threat and danger. While staying at a youth hostel she chances to meet Rudi (Max Riemelt), a seemingly charming, erudite and affable young man who teaches English at a High School and they spend the day exploring the city and talking. Rudi certainly displays no indication of being damaged goods and Clare spends the night at his apartment. After he departs for work the following morning, Clare discovers that all the doors and windows are immutably sealed and he has removed the SIM card from her phone. He clearly has no intention of allowing her to leave. Upon his return that evening, the former cheery gallantry has vanished from his demeanor and Clare is faced by a coldly masterful personality veering erratically between hints of menace and an out of kilter ‘flatmate’ vibe. Over the ensuing months the power dynamic of the relationship between the couple mutates and shifts constantly. Because Clare is wholly dependent upon Rudi both for survival and any human contact, a Stockholm-like bond forms as the title suggests. Palmer adroitly handles this as we are uncertain if she is faking it or has been genuinely psychologically warped by the experience a la Patty Hearst. She later discovers a photo album that suggests she may not have been the first prisoner held by Rudi.


Based on the novel of the same name by Melbourne author Melanie Joosten, this succeeds as a tense and involving thriller although once all the pieces are in place with the initial plot, the second half does not always maintain the aura of foreboding so well created initially. But overall, the cinematography by Germain McMicking, the often eerie electronic soundtrack courtesy of Bryony Marks and very assured direction by Cate Shortland have united to produce a mostly riveting film. Because this is primarily a two-hander, the focus is on Palmer and Riemelt to take the audience through the expected jumps, scares, twists and potential escapes of the genre and they perform admirably. The production is almost technically flawless other than being a shade lengthy at 116 minutes.  


There have been two recent films based on the notion of captivity by a dominant male 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE and ROOM. By exploring the notion of the captor / captive bond here more intensely, Shortland avoids basic comparisons with those films as this production delves into that nuanced psychological territory more deeply.


While not precisely similar, for much of this viewing experience I kept harking back to the excellent, 1965 triple-Oscar nominated THE COLLECTOR with Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar. There too, as with this film, it was the scenes involving the captive girl on her own or with her kidnapper in the claustrophobic confines of their respective prisons that held the audience interest most powerfully. The external scenes showing the everyday life of the captor tended to detract from the nail-biting tension of the story. But that was the sole negative I found with this movie.


Teresa Palmer continues to stretch in indie and challenging roles and would appear to have a promising future on the screen.    






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